Social Origins of Democracy: Power shifts from land to money

The rise of a money economy sounded the death knell of feudalism. “Feudal customs and practices completely decayed by 1500. Personal unfreedom and the status of villeinage were eradicated by 1640.” Land, the basis of power in the medieval period, lost its importance. It took centuries for this process to reach completion. But the seeds were sown with the birth of money.

With the growth of a money economy, the feudal lords found the serf labor less competent than free labor. So they commuted the old feudal dues into fixed money payments. Lands were leased to free peasants in return for rent. Serfdom lost its foundations and gave way to peasant proprietorship.

The peasantry achieved a degree of freedom and prosperity that it had not known in the last thousand years. The lessening of the old seignorial relations between lord and the cultivator coupled with the continued disintegration of the manorial system further spurred the social position of the individual citizen.

The decline of feudalism opened the doors for agricultural development. In the feudal period, agricultural production was aimed only to meet the needs of the lord and his manor. The profit motive released by the money economy transformed feudal subsistence production into commercial agriculture. The new commercial agriculture helped change the unreflecting peasant of the 13th century into an individualistic and enterprising farmer. The freedom and emergence of individual as a result of the breakdown of feudalism and shift from a subsistence economy to a market economy prepared the grounds for the growth of English democracy.

Waves of inflation that swept through England during the 15th century provided additional impetus for the new agrarian economy. The rise in population and increase in the flow of silver and gold from America and Spain were important causes for inflation during this period. The price rise stimulated the commercial exploitation of land. It shattered the financial stability of the Crown, though the extent of the damage to the Crown only became fully apparent two centuries later.

By depressing royal income deriving from fixed land rents and taxes and by increasing royal expenditure, the price rise made the king increasingly dependent on the Parliament for finance. The loss of the Crown’s financial independence was one of the most important reasons for the growth of political democracy. The price rise redistributed national income among the rising class of gentry and merchants. This redistribution of national wealth undermined the medieval concentration of wealth that had contributed to the suppression and serfdom of peasants.

The economic changes rendered possible by the forces of inflation and market economy brought to the forefront new classes in English society – gentry and yeomen. Along with the merchant class, the gentry and yeomen gradually replaced the old baronial families in the political and social life. This new landed aristocracy based more on wealth than on birth, became the nucleus for the governing class in the counties. Backed by the power of money, these classes gained the power to voice their political and religious disagreements with the government.

Source: MSS Research